Michael Caine old? You've got to be kidding. The tall imposing actor is as lively and as charming as ever. He has failed to lose his Cockney accent or sense of humour and his strong work ethic is still in tact.
At 82, though, leading man roles are hard to come by. Caine's latest movie, a meditation on ageing - appropriately titled Youth - could represent his last chance to be finally recognised with a best actor Oscar. After supporting role wins for Hannah and Her Sisters and The Cider House Rules he certainly deserves one. You can hear the thunderous applause already. Few people in the movie industry are more loved or revered.
In Cannes, where Youth premiered, the actor who was born Maurice Micklewhite joked how he hadn't returned to the festival since presenting Alfie in 1966, as he didn't win a prize. He did, however, go on to score a best actor nomination. Strangely, he failed to win at the Riviera festival this year for his portrayal as Fred Ballinger, a world famous composer and conductor, though he is at the front of the field at the European Film Awards to be announced in Berlin on December 12. An Oscar, he admits, "would be nice".
We are sitting on a Cannes rooftop overlooking the glistening Mediterranean and billionaires' boats and Caine is in his usual magnanimous mood. Rather than for fame or fortune (he has made most of his money out of restaurants), he says he did Youth, which is set in a Swiss health spa, in order to work with the eccentric Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, 2013's foreign Oscar winner for The Great Beauty.
Watch the trailer for Youth here:
"This film is about life. It's funny, it's sad, it's everything. It's not a comedy, it's not a drama, it's not a satire, it's not a musical, but there's a lot of music in it. It's Paolo, that's what it is. It's Paolo's view of things and I love it." One of the funniest scenes is when Fred languishes in a pool with his old pal Mick (Harvey Keitel), and a naked Miss Universe joins them. It's the widely touted image on the film's poster.
"Harvey and I kept our clothes on, we didn't want to upset anyone," Caine jokes at the memory. "But Paolo didn't tell us everything. He said, 'A pretty girl's going to come in the pool.' We thought the pretty girl was going to wear a bathing costume - and that's why you've got the stunned look on our faces," he laughs. "We were stunned for real." It is, of course, a memory to savour and it is one Caine intends on retaining. In fact, his memory, unlike Keitel's in the film, is in great shape.
"I have a memory like a computer. I remember every bloody thing. It's dreadful. My memory's so full of stuff that I wish I could get a garbage guy to come round and clear some out."
Those memories of course are precious. It's hard not to be transfixed as Caine reels out his illustrious past, including his friendship with Cary Grant and his potential trysts with Bridget Bardot and Bette Davis, who, at age 75, brushed him off after a date.
"I was about 40 and, at the end of the evening, Bette says to me, 'I am going home alone in a taxi'. Just in case I was going to make a pass at her."
The bespectacled, redheaded actor who made his name as the serial womaniser in Alfie (1966) and followed up with his stylish gangsters in The Italian Job (1969) and Get Carter (1971), had quite the reputation in the swinging 60s. However, his hedonism and heavy drinking - at one point he drank up to three bottles of vodka a day - had in part been his reaction to his brush with death while serving in the armed forces in Korea. "It made me realise that I had to start living my life to the full."
He has been a beacon of respectability since his marriage, in 1973, to Shakira Baksh, a former Miss Guyana whom he actively pursued after seeing her in a coffee commercial on a rare night at home. He now mainly drinks wine at dinner and quit his 80-a-day cigarette habit in the early 70s. He explains why his marriage has endured.
"The first thing was I married the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen in my life and I still mean that. And secondly we always go on location together. Location is the trick. Some actors say location doesn't count in their marriage, you know," he chuckles. "Everywhere counts in my marriage." He is also devoted to his two daughters, Dominique, 57, from a brief marriage to the late Patricia Haines in the 50s, and Natasha, 41, with Baksh and now their three grandchildren.
"Oh blimey, my daughters! I am an incredible family man. I came from a poor working-class family in South London but it was like a clan. I sort of have 1000 relatives and there was no divorce or anything like that. I came from a very happy home. I was never hungry, tired, dirty or neglected. So I brought those principles forward for myself."
However, this son of a fish market porter and a charwoman did have troubles in his childhood during World War II, as he wrote in his 2010 autobiography The Elephant To Hollywood. He was evacuated from London and sent to Norfolk, where the family who took him in beat him and locked him in a cupboard under the stairs.
"You have to remember, we were running away from death," he told one interviewer. "We were going to get bombed if we stayed in London. Actually, my mother came down and sorted it out in two weeks. Took us back." In his adulthood he became a patron for abused children. "Child abuse is the worst form of cowardice you can think of, to do something bad to a defenceless child," he says.
Understandably, he relished being transported into the world of cinema from an early age. "I used to go to the cinema seven times a week when I was a young boy. I'd play hookey from school and used the dinner money my mother gave me. I'd seen every movie that was ever made, the good, the bad or the indifferent. I love what I do and always wanted to do it because I love movies as an audience."
When he came to cinema acting late, at age 30, Caine was determined to portray his Cockney background on screen. Alfie became his breakthrough movie in America, as he entranced audiences with a dialect they had never heard.
"Two of my heroes, Humphrey Bogart and Marlon Brando, came from modest backgrounds. It was more possible in the US earlier than in the UK, where becoming a famous actor for a long time was only possible from another class."
At age 76 Caine returned to his old Elephant and Castle neighbourhood to play a geriatric vigilante in Harry Brown, a more mainstream film where he gave an award-worthy performance. However, he says the film he holds dearest is the Len Deighton thriller, The Ipcress File.
"It was the first time I ever went over the title," he pronounces proudly.
He was a bespectacled Cockney James Bond, I recall. "They called me James Bond three and a half!" Caine quips of Harry Palmer, the spy he went on to play in four subsequent movies. Constantly recycling his characters he wore his trademark dark-rimmed glasses in last year's hit spy spoof Kingsman: The Secret Service.
Currently, to younger audiences though, Caine is best known for his role as Batman's butler in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. His eldest grandson, Taylor Michael Caine Hall, is a fan.
"My first grandchild was a boy and he looks exactly like me - only better-looking," Caine says. "He became like my son and to this day he is my son in my mind. He's got two fathers.
"We were watching a cartoon one day and a commercial for Batman came on and I'm standing there with Batman. Taylor looked at me - he didn't know what I do, he was about 4. He said, 'Do you know Batman?' I said, 'Yeah, he's a friend of mine.' He stood up in front of the class the next day at school and said, 'My pa's a friend of Batman's.' I brought him on the set of this film and he immediately became a first assistant." Honouring the fact that he never had a son, Natasha named her children after their grandfather. She called her second son Miles Michael Caine Hall, though his twin sister, Alegra, had to miss out. "She's not Alegra Michael Caine!" notes the actor, who stresses that he dotes on all three.
"I'll bore you to death with my grandchildren," he admits, as he recalls Taylor conducting the twins as their granddad does in Youth's rousing finale.
"My grandchildren came on the set and had a lovely day seeing what Pa does. They understand movies now because they're 6 and 5. A month later they went on holiday and their nanny sent me a film on her telephone of Taylor conducting Alegra singing on the beach. I thought 'that is incredible, that's what I love about children'." The scene in question is when Ballinger finally agrees to the Queen's request to conduct his most famous symphony, which he had previously only ever done with his ailing wife as the soprano, for Prince Philip's birthday.
Caine, who in 2000 officially became Sir Maurice Micklewhite - even if he doesn't make a big thing of it - is a much bigger fan of the monarchy than his character, who after all is the creation of the left-leaning Sorrentino. Caine has long been a fan of the Tories and once endorsed Margaret Thatcher's tax policies favouring the rich.
"I was very proud to be knighted," he says. "I love the monarchy; I think they're great. They're a massive tourist attraction too. If we didn't have a monarchy I think we'd get a quarter of the tourists." So what's the difference between receiving an Academy Award and a knighthood?
"You get an Academy Award for a performance. A knighthood, it's for a life."
It's interesting that Caine's movies, especially of late, have been highly personal. Youth is largely about his relationship with his buddy who is suffering from dementia and the malady is becoming increasingly close to home. In the past he has spoken about his old mates Sean Connery and Roger Moore retiring from acting, though they aren't his only close friends.
"I have 11 close friends. I remember I was sitting somewhere very lonely on location in Africa and I thought, 'I wish my friends were here.' And I counted 'em and I have 11. I have about eight now. Three are dead but none of them have I ever had a row with. I mean you never say things like 'You're great' or 'You're fantastic' but you know what's wrong with you and you never say that. None of us ever points out each other's faults." This of course is the same kind of relationship Ballinger shares with Keitel in Youth. At the end of the film we also see the passionate loyalty he affords to his non-cognisant wife, as she stares out blankly at the Venice canals.
"My best friend died of Alzheimer's and it's like watching someone walk away to the horizon, very slowly," Caine says of his tailor, Doug Hayward, a proud Cockney who had been instrumental in creating the 60s look for men, and who had helped design suits for Moore's 007 as well as inspiring John Le Carre's The Tailor Of Panama.
"It takes them like three years to get out of sight [with Alzheimer's] and then they're gone. I remember going around to Doug's house and he didn't know who I was for the first time. It was heartbreaking." After Hayward's death at age 73, Caine did a little research. "I started looking up books regarding what to eat and stuff to stop dementia," he chuckles. "You know, you can get all those pills, but I'm so old now I think dementia says, 'Forget it!'" If one of the means of keeping such maladies at bay is staying alert, Caine is on a winner. He has been widely parodied as a know-it-all, as "Michael Paine", after his friend Peter Sellers declared on Parkinson that he had "the biggest mind of useless information", citing what became Michael Paine's catchphrase, "Not many people know that." While Caine insists he never coined the expression, he has been known to chime in on the joke and use it in his own interview routines.
"It's a compliment that people know who I am," he says. "People ask me, 'Do you get annoyed with people stopping you in the street?' I say, 'Not as annoyed as I'd get if they didn't stop me'." In any case, the 82 year-old granddad is always keeping up with everything.
"I'm on the iPad all day long. I was always known as a know-it-all when I was at school because they asked me facts and I'd commit it to this memory of mine. Now I do know it all. Literally, everything, because now I've got an iPad."
Does he do Facebook or Twitter?
"I just save the tweet in case I need it for emergencies."
Youth is at cinemas on December 4.